Shared attention

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A note for Lesson no. 3, "Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World," in Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context from page 55 is:

After months of practice sharing attention with caregivers, an infant will learn to elicit shared attention from them.

Shared attention, sometimes called joint attention, occurs when two people focus on the same object.[1] It involves looking at one another, then toward the object, then at one another again, sometimes accompanied by non-verbal gestures (e.g., pointing) or words. For an overview of different theories of shared attention, see Mundy (2016).[2]

Infants learn early in life to follow the gaze of their caregivers, and eventually they request or elicit shared attention from them.[3] In a famous experiment called the "visual cliff,"[4] scientists placed an infant next to a four-foot drop that was safely covered by a sheet of clear Plexiglas, with their caregiver on the opposite side of the drop. Infants would routinely look to their caregiver for guidance, soliciting shared attention, before crawling onto the sheet.[5] (For an interesting, extended scientific discussion of the visual cliff experiments, see LoBue & Adolph, 2019).[6]

Shared attention is considered to be one important ingredient for language development and normal learning, both in educational and social settings.[7][8][9][10]

Lack of shared attention

In general, if caregivers provide a baby with opportunities for shared attention along with safe, supervised opportunities to try out new things, the child's brain will learn what to pay attention to, what to ignore, and how to regulate behavior.

If the child does not learn what is salient and what isn't, by sharing attention, then more things remain salient, and this is not a healthful trajectory for brain development. When a child is exposed to adversity, either due to caregiver neglect (e.g., failing to share attention) or outright abuse, her amygdala may develop some of its adult connections too early. The child's brain may have a difficult time guessing what to pay attention to and what to ignore, creating vigilance to uncertainty and novelty.[11][12] Think of it as tuning what should be pruned away at this stage. That's partly how anxiety develops.

Scientists don't understand all the mechanisms, but here is some reasoned speculation: If a child's lantern of attention does not sufficiently narrow into a spotlight, her niche becomes too large too quickly. This expansion could lead to a poorly tuned amygdala and an unnecessarily vigilant brain that can’t properly distinguish signal from noise. Each time she has a false alarm about threat, she accumulates a little bit of body budgeting debt. These small but persistent withdrawals could lead to a serious deficit over the long run, which creates the conditions for illness or even an earlier death. On the other hand, if she has caregivers who help to regulate her attention by indicating when things are safe or unsafe or uncertain, then her amygdala’s connections are free to develop more slowly, without the accumulating tax of adversity. Based on animal research, some of the ill effects of faster amygdala development might even be transmitted from one generation to the next.

Parental support can be buffering for a child, even after adverse life experiences.[13]

A child's attentional system will also be shaped by how vigilant caregivers are to uncertainty and novelty,[14] and shared attention might be one behavior that allows for this transmission of vigilance across generations.

See also


  1. Scaife, Michael, and Jerome S. Bruner. 1975. "The Capacity For Joint Visual Attention In the Infant." Nature 253 (5489): 265–266.
  2. Mundy Peter C. 2016. Autism and Joint Attention: Development, Neuroscience, and Clinical Fundamentals. New York: Guilford.
  3. Baldwin, Dare A. 1991. "Infants' Contribution to the Achievement of Joint Reference." Child Development 62 (5): 875–890.
  4. Gibson, Eleanor J., and Richard D. Walk. 1960. "The 'Visual Cliff.'” Scientific American 202 (4): 64–71.
  5. Tamis-LeMonda, Catherine S., Karen E. Adolph, Sharon A. Lobo, Lana B. Karasik, Shaziela Ishak, and Katherine A. Dimitropoulou. 2008. "When Infants Take Mothers' Advice: 18-Month-Olds Integrate Perceptual And Social Information To Guide Motor Action." Developmental Psychology 44 (3): 734–746.
  6. LoBue, Vanessa, and Karen E. Adolph. 2019. "Fear In Infancy: Lessons From Snakes, Spiders, Heights, and Strangers." Developmental psychology 55 (9): 1889–1907.
  7. Meltzoff, Andrew N., Patricia K. Kuhl, Javier Movellan, and Terrence J. Sejnowski. 2009. "Foundations for a new science of learning." Science 325 (5938): 284–288.
  8. Mundy, Peter, and Lisa Newell. 2007. "Attention, Joint Attention, and Social Cognition." Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (5): 269–274.
  9. Brooks, Rechele, and Andrew N. Meltzoff. 2015. "Connecting The Dots From Infancy To Childhood: A Longitudinal Study Connecting Gaze Following, Language, And Explicit Theory Of Mind." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 130: 67–78.
  10. Beuker, Karin T., Nanda NJ Rommelse, Rogier Donders, and Jan K. Buitelaar. 2013 "Development Of Early Communication Skills In the First Two Years Of Life." Infant Behavior and Development 36 (1):71–83.
  11. VanTieghem, Michelle R., and Nim Tottenham. 2018. "Neurobiological Programming Of Early Life Stress: Functional Development Of Amygdala-Prefrontal Circuitry and Vulnerability For Stress-Related Psychopathology." Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences 38: 117–136.
  12. Silvers, Jennifer A., Bonnie Goff, Laurel J. Gabard-Durnam, Dylan G. Gee, Dominic S. Fareri, Christina Caldera, and Nim Tottenham. 2017. "Vigilance, the Amygdala, and Anxiety in Youths With a History of Institutional Care." Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging 2 (6): 493–501.
  13. Callaghan, Bridget L., Dylan G. Gee, Laurel Gabard-Durnam, Eva H. Telzer, Kathryn L. Humphreys, Bonnie Goff, Mor Shapiro, Jessica Flannery, Daniel S. Lumian, Dominic S. Fareri, Christina Caldera, and Nim Tottenham. 2019. "Decreased Amygdala Reactivity to Parent Cues Protects Against Anxiety Following Early Adversity: An Examination Across 3 Years." Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging 4 (7): 664-671.
  14. Eley, Thalia C., Tom A. McAdams, Fruhling V. Rijsdijk, Paul Lichtenstein, Jurgita Narusyte, David Reiss, Erica L. Spotts, Jody M. Ganiban, and Jenae M. Neiderhiser. 2015. "The Intergenerational Transmission Of Anxiety: A Children-Of-Twins Study." American Journal of Psychiatry 172 (7): 630–637.